Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks was no moral victory. Moral victories don’t exist in professional sports. No one cares the Niners played tough against a good team on the road or that the game was close until the end. A loss is always a loss is always a loss.
But you must admit, the defense played well. And the running game was effective. And the special teams were good, too. Those three gave the Niners a chance to win. If the passing game had been even slightly better than dreadful, the Niners could have beaten the Seahawks.
The same principle will hold true for Thursday night’s game against the Rams. The Niners can win if their passing game is merely competent. It doesn’t have to flourish. Forget flourish. The goal is competent.
Five things the Niners must do to achieve an adequate passing game against the Rams.
1. Find a play that works.
Kyle Shanahan still hasn’t done that. Through two games, he hasn’t established one pass play he knows his players can execute.
Surely, they have to be good at something. He has to figure out what that something is.
When Bill Walsh was stuck, he would call “22 Z In.” Basically, that was a 12-yard hook route to Jerry Rice — Rice would run 12 yards up field, then stop and turn back toward the quarterback. Joe Montana also had the option to throw a swing pass to Roger Craig in the flat or a short pass to Brent Jones over the middle if Rice wasn’t open. Three easy completions.
Of course, Shanahan doesn’t have Rice, Montana, Craig or Jones. But, Walsh didn’t have them either in 1979, his first year as the 49ers head coach. Walsh had Steve DeBerg, who wasn’t Walsh’s quarterback of the future. Still, his offense ranked third in the NFL in passing yards that season.
What pass concepts will Shanahan establish Thursday night?
He should have his own encyclopedia of plays that work even with limited talent. When he coached the Redskins offense in 2011 and his quarterback was Rex Grossman, Shanahan had plays that were successful. His offense ranked 14th in passing yards per game.
When he coached the Browns offense in 2014 and his quarterback was Brian Hoyer, Shanahan had plays that were successful. His offense ranked 20th in passing yards per game.
Shanahan’s current offense ranks 31st in passing yards per game. That’s unacceptable. He’s better than that.
2. Build Brian Hoyer’s confidence.
Hoyer has become the subject of ridicule the past two games. That’s not fair.
He was excellent last season. He threw six touchdown passes and zero interceptions in five starts, and he passed for more than 300 yards four times. In his fifth start, he broke his arm and left the game early.
What was Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains doing that allowed Hoyer to be so successful? Shanahan needs to study that offense, then needs to design plays Hoyer can handle. Give him easy completions. Build his confidence. Build momentum for the offense.
Shanahan chose to bring Hoyer to the 49ers — Hoyer wasn’t forced upon him. Hoyer is his guy. Shanahan has to find a way to make things work with him.
3. Throw to Pierre Garcon early and often.